For ‘Annie’ Or The Vice Presidency, Auditions Try The Nerves

Auditions make me nervous. Not for myself — I’m beyond the casting-call stage of life. But rather for anyone who still has the nerve to endure the almost always disappointing, sometimes humiliating, process of being screened, interviewed, tested and most probably rejected for a role in show business. Or journalism. Or politics, wherein the final auditions for a part as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate are reported to be underway.

The Biden casting process, confined to women, has been wide, semi-public and deliberate enough to keep a lot of proud candidates dangling. At one time or another, Stacey Abrams, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Val Demings and Elizabeth Warren have been in the mix. Fantasy whispers about Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama won’t go away. Those who supposedly know — that is, the media elite — in the past few days have locked on Kamala Harris, Karen Bass and, now, Susan Rice, as the decision approaches.

This probably is a legitimate and serious review, with lots of testing and vetting.

But it is more than usually nerve-wracking, maybe because the process, right down to the latest eleventh hour delay of a final announcement, is beginning to feel like a deliberate spectacle — an event designed to get attention, like Ray Stark’s famous casting call for Annie, which was trying the grit of a much-younger group of women 40 years ago this month.

For those (mercifully) too young to remember, Stark then was producing a somewhat overblown and slightly under-appreciated film version of the stage musical Annie for Columbia. John Huston was directing. But Ray, an unembarrassed promoter, got well entangled in a casting process that became bigger than a search for a star. It was nearly the whole show.

Casting director Garrison True was sent on a nationwide tour, hitting 21 cities in his scout for an actress to play the comic strip-inspired Little Orphan Annie. “She’s got to be able to sing and dance and act, and have a personality that, when you see her on screen, you care about her, you go, ‘Wow, there she is!’” True told The New York Times. That was in late August of 1980, as he worked his way through 900 would-be Annies at the Plaza in Manhattan.

In all, he personally would see about 8,000 girls, supposedly between ages 7 and 10, in a search that began with 20,000 photo submissions. About 500 of those candidates made it to Stark and Huston on videotape. Nine were sent in November to an “Annie Academy” in Los Angeles, where they trained for the role. One, Aileen Quinn, finally was selected, in a decision that was announced at the Beverly Hills headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in mid-January of 1981 — and was televised.

Annie did just all right at the box office: It was neither a smash hit nor a total failure. Quinn afterward landed occasional film and television roles and happily fronted a rockabilly band, among other gigs, if her bio on IMDbPro is to be believed.

But there was damage to some of those 8,000 rejected wannabes. According to the Times, True had tried to tell them: “If I don’t call your number later, it doesn’t mean we don’t think you’re talented. It doesn’t mean I don’t like ya.” Years later, however, a generation of red-haired lounge performers still was stewing about the audition, and wistfully singing “Tomorrow” in aging fern bars.

I heard one at Tampico Tilly’s in Santa Monica. You could feel the rejection, even then. It made me nervous.

So let’s hope the prospective Democratic presidential candidate wraps his talent search soon, and without leaving too much wreckage behind.

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